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The following Member took and subscribed the Oath:
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. If, like me, you are an avid reader of The Mail on Sunday, you will have been as shocked as me to read the revelation yesterday by a Labour party apparatchik, who mentioned
I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker. You know that we can refer individual cases of abuse of the parliamentary postage allowance to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, but what can we do about systematic abuse of that allowance by the Labour party and its officials? It is a disgrace, which must be tackled immediately.
Mr. Speaker: I am interested in the fact that the right hon. Gentleman raised the matter because I asked the Administration Committee to look into it so that it could come back to the House of Commons Commission. The right hon. Gentleman is a member of that Committee and I understand that it is an item on the agenda for tomorrow. He has my permission to say to the Administration Committee that the Speaker is waiting patiently for the report.
I was delighted that the measure, which was promoted as a private Member's Bill by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) was granted an unopposed Second Reading by the House on 20 January. The money resolution was tabled on 23 January. It is likely to have some expenditure implications for the public purse, which relate to Department for International Development staff and non-staff costs that are needed to complete new policy work on implementing the new work that the Bill requires, and to prepare an annual report to Parliament. No provision is included for the costs of implementation by other Departments as they are considered minimal.
The Bill aims to increase transparency in the provision, reporting and use of aid and to promote coherence in Government policies on international development. To that end, it requires my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to make an annual report to Parliament containing a series of quantitative and qualitative assessments.
The Bill requires extensive reporting on UK development assistance provided both directly to developing country partners and indirectly through multilateral agencies. Data on bilateral aid will be broken down by region and by sector, and data on multilateral aid will be broken down according to the groups of multilateral agencies through which the UK contributes. The report will specify the proportions of aid that go to low-income countries. It will also include data on the debt relief that the United Kingdom provides to developing countries.
The Bill specifically deals with tracking the UK's progress towards the United Nations target for expenditure on official development assistanceODAto constitute 0.7 per cent. of gross national income. Much of the financial information that the Bill requires is already reported voluntarily. However, to fulfil the Bill's detailed requirements, the Department would need to develop new financial and management information systems that are capable of producing data, disaggregated to the level of detail that the measure requires. That would require respecification of the management information systems that are currently under design in the Department and incur additional costs.
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The Bill as drafted would require the Department to prepare regulations prescribing definitions for the terms contained in it. In terms of qualitative assessments, the Bill will, in the first instance, require my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to assess the coherence of UK Government policies on poverty reduction and sustainable development.
David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Will the Bill explain why some Department officials can travel first class rather than business class, at great expense? Why have they managed to ratchet up £9 million of travel expenses? Why can they travel in great luxury, in a way that not even Members of Parliament can do?
Mr. Thomas: I invite the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) to take part in our consideration of the Bill on Report. I do not remember him taking part in the debate on Second Readingmore is the pity.
The Bill will require assessments of the effectiveness of British aid, and that, when necessary, revisions should be made to information included in previous annual reports. This will require an additional validation exercise to be carried out each year on the information in the previous year's reports.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the Minister bear in mind my past remarks about the necessity for external audit if the internal public accounts committees of the member states in question are not prepared to do the job properly?
Mr. Thomas: I will of course bear in mind the comments that the hon. Gentleman has made, both in relation to his own 10-minute Bill on the subject and in exchanges that he and I have had in the House on other occasions. I hope that, in turn, he will bear in mind my responses, in which I highlighted the full range of auditing opportunities that exist for British development assistance and for improvements in the Government systems that benefit from the aid that we give. I shall turn now to the part of the Bill in which I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a particular interest.
The last part of the Bill requires an assessment of the UK's contribution to promoting transparency in the provision and use of aid. As I mentioned on Second Reading, the Government agree with the thrust of the clause on transparency, but we believe that, as drafted, it is over-prescriptive. As drafted, the Bill requires the Department to undertake new work negotiating formal bilateral agreements with all countries to which the UK provides aidsome 130 in 200405and to commission and publish independent monitoring and evaluation reports recording the development objectives achieved by those countries.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op):
Significant concerns have been raised recently
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about the delays in distribution associated with some of DFID's activities following the tsunami disaster and the Pakistan earthquake. Will the Minister tell us whether the proposed reporting structure will be sufficiently flexible to deal with these massive and wholly unpredictable one-off events, so that we can judge DFID's effectiveness in responding to them?
Mr. Thomas: The issue of reporting on the effectiveness of humanitarian assistance was raised on Second Reading, and I am sure that we shall return to it in Committee as well as on Report and Third Reading. I do not accept my hon. Friend's recollection of delays in the delivery of assistance of relief or reconstruction, in response to either the tsunami or the Pakistan earthquake. Indeed, we have been praised for the speed of the delivery of our assistance in both cases.
I recognise the importance of the Bill, and, with the expectation that amendments made to it in Committee will hold the costs to Parliament of its implementation to a minimum, I commend the motion to the House.
Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): As the Minister has said, this is the money resolution for the International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Bill promoted by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke). The resolution and the Bill would, if passed, require the Department for International Development to report annually, directly to Parliament and in a transparent and accountable way, on its progress towards achieving 0.7 per cent. of gross domestic productwith which we agreeand on the effectiveness of its aid programmes in alleviating poverty.
The money resolution is concerned with authorising expenditure for those aims, and I acknowledge that this debate should not extend to the related Bill. However, I would like to place on record that the Conservatives support the general principles of the Bill, and were pleased that it was given an unopposed Second Reading. As I am sure the House is aware, the resolution lays down the maximum chargewhich amendments may reduce in scope, but not extendeither of the amount of expenditure or of the area of its operation.
We understand and hope that the Government intend substantially to amend the Bill to widen its scope and extent to include many of the provisions raised on Second Reading by Members on both sides of the House. I am pleased that this may be the case, but, as things stand, we have yet to see any Government amendments, so it is extremely difficult to know how extensive the changes might be. I am worried that the Government's delay in tabling their amendmentsrequired by the rise of the House today in time for the Committee on Wednesdaymakes it difficult not only for there to be proper scrutiny of the money resolution, but for us to table our amendments, as we expect the Bill to be greatly altered.
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